WWAMI Program Prepares To Undergo Changes

The WWAMI program is the only option for Alaskans who want to stay in the state for part of medical school. And it’s about to undergo changes that will reshape when and where students can attend classes.

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Only around a quarter of the students who apply for the Alaska branch of the WWAMI program are accepted. And once they are, students spend two years in classrooms and labs, followed by another two years of clinical rotations. Right now at least one of those years is spent outside Alaska.

Monica Wright is a third-year medical student and a married mother of two. She says spending time away from her home and family was a challenge.

“I had to, you know, pay for an apartment for 9 months out in Seattle, so it’s kind of like maintaining two households while being in medical school; it was a little bit tough. I was able to fly home once a month to see my family, but that was another, kind of, added expense,” Wright said. “So, it was challenging, you know, you talk on the phone every night and do what you can.”

Wright wishes she had been able to stay in Alaska. Future WWAMI students will have that option starting in the fall of 2015.

“We’re very close to having the possibility for Alaska students to do all four years here in Alaska if they so choose,” Alaska WWAMI director Dr. Nancy Jane Shelby said.

For most students, staying in Alaska will be cheaper and easier.

The change is possible because of a dramatic curriculum overhaul.

Shelby says the new curriculum will focus on more active learning instead of lectures. And by reorganizing classes, it should help ease the transition for students as they enter different phases of their education.

“So a student, instead of learning what’s normal the first year, what’s abnormal the second year, and then be expected in their third-year clerkship to integrate all this and remember what they learned two years ago, we’re gonna do it in a more natural continuum of learning experience for the students,” Shelby said.

Shelby expects to hire more staff to help handle the second-year students, who would normally be out of state.

The Alaska WWAMI program also wants to grow. They accept 20 new students each year, but in order to meet the physician workforce demands in the state, Shelby says they need to at least double that number. And she thinks that’s doable.

“I’m quite impressed with what I’m seeing in terms of high school and undergraduate students in Alaska, from all parts of Alaska,” Shelby said. “I think we do have that pipeline that we can develop so we could have 40 outstanding students each year in our class.”

As the program grows, Shelby hopes to see more students go on to work in Alaska’s under-served, rural communities.

“We’re hoping that by recruiting students from rural and more remote areas, or students that have a particular interest in eventually practicing there, that we’ll increase that recruitment of physicians to those areas,” she said.

Shelby says approximately eight of every 10 students who go through Alaska’s WWAMI program return to practice in the state for at least five years.

And she thinks that’s a pretty good return.